The term “underappreciated” is overused by many a Hip Hop head to describe the phenomena of ones favorite emcee never attaining the commercial success they believe said spitter should have. But in the case of Masta Ace, underappreciated is an understatement in describing the man who has managed to make “Beautiful” music in three distinctly different Hip Hop eras and inarguably influenced the best-selling rapper of the 21st century.
Twenty-three years after he debuted as a member of the historic Hip Hop collective The Juice Crew, Ace is admirably still building bars for those who truly appreciate witty, well-thought writing in the era of emcees “Cashin’ Out” in lieu of making the effort to make their art less disposable. With the audio aid of Hip Hop’s masked man, MF DOOM, he has just unveiled his latest contribution to culture preservation, Ma_Doom: Son of Yvonne (digitally available right now, physically available on July 17th). The deeply personal project simultaneously serves as a partial audio-biography and tribute to his late mother.
Recently, HipHopDX had the pleasure of speaking to one of Rap music’s truly unsung talents about his new musical offering. The Brooklyn, New York native additionally discussed with DX the trials and tribulations he endured 18 years ago when he became essentially the A$AP Rocky of his era, incorporating into his music the sound of area codes far removed from his 212 stomping grounds. And as has become customary in any Masta Ace interview over the last decade, the name of Ace’s most notable disciple surfaced but this time with some intriguing insight into why student and teacher have never taught a class or two on creative writing together.
HipHopDX: Before we get to discussing your new album, I wanna take it back to the mid-‘90s for a quick sec. Probably just about every 25-and-under fan you have thinks of you solely in the context of the kick-and-snare sound, but I wanna go back to when Masta Ace had that bass. Have you ever considered going back to that bass-heavy, “Born To Roll” sound for maybe a throwback track or two?
Masta Ace: Not really. When I was doing that sound it wasn’t necessarily something that I would have creatively pursued the way I did if not for pressure from the label.
It was one of those deals where we got surprising success with “Born To Roll” – that was actually right after the SlaughtaHouse album – and when we were getting ready to do the next record we had a meeting, and at that marketing meeting everybody was encouraging me to do a record that embraced the car culture. And I mean, I was into it, that was my thing … I was into big systems, heavy bass and all of that, but in a lot of ways once people start talking in your ear the music somehow becomes not necessarily what you intended for it to become. I really tried to give them what they wanted but still stay true to what I believed in, and the result of that was the Sittin’ On Chrome album.
DX: You were getting your DJ Magic Mike on at exactly the same time New York had gotten its grimiest. I understand your fellow rotten apple residents weren’t feeling like taking an “I.N.C. Ride” at the time?
Masta Ace: There was definitely a lot of backlash during that time from fellow New Yorkers and artists in New York. It seemed to me that the overwhelming consensus was that I had “went West Coast.” And at that time there was a really big divide in the game. You had to pick a side. And, they wasn’t feeling me trying to ride the middle.
DX: So they ironically loved “Jeep Ass Niguh,” but hated “Born To Roll” even though it was the same song.
Masta Ace: Strange as it might sound.
DX: And what I also find ironic is on the SlaughtaHouse album you were clowning gangsta culture. Like, that’s the most gangsta-sounding anti-gangsta album ever.
Masta Ace: A lot of people didn’t get that. And the crazy thing is that the title-track, “SlaughtaHouse,” there’s that first part where I have the characters, MC Negro and The Ig’nant MC - that part of the song where they’re rappin’ over the Zapp “More Bounce To The Ounce” loop – and that part of the record became so popular in certain markets [that] we had to do a mix of that song with just them rappin’ on it.
I went to a car show in St. Louis and they were telling me, “Yeah, that song is huge out here.” But I didn’t really believe ‘em. And then the deejay put it on and everybody went crazy, hands in the air. Like, at that moment that was the jam. And I’m like, “They don’t even get that this was like a parody.” Nobody got it, so I watched people put they hands in the air and scream “murder, murder, murder, kill, kill, kill” and all that.
DX: Wow. Now, given your time trying to infuse a non-New York sound into your music, do you have any advice for A$AP Rocky as he tries to bring H-Town to Uptown against resistance from some who want that “Shook Ones” sound to forever be the sound that defines East Coast Hip Hop?
Masta Ace: [A$AP Rocky is] fortunate because I don’t think that the lines are so defined now, as far as [what the sound is of the] East Coast and New York. You listen to the radio you’ll hear more down South records than anything, more down South artists than anything. He’s coming up in a time where New York isn’t necessarily so hardcore [in its belief that] it needs to sound boom bap. New York is very watered down compared to how it used to be. People are a lot more open to artists experimenting with sound and doing different things. I think 50 Cent kinda opened that door a little bit when he came with kind of a down South drawl with his flow, and he was straight Queens wit’ it. So, I think that there’s no real rules.
I took all the lumps. And 50 came 10 years later and he did it and it was love. So I think A$AP Rocky is good to go with whatever he wants to do.
DX: Let’s leap back to 2012 from 1995 and talk about this Ma_Doom project. You know the chatter is out there about this being more of a mixtape than an album since you’re spittin’ over old MF DOOM beats. What do you say to someone to motivate them to treat this like the retail release it is and fork over that $8.99 to Amazon?
Masta Ace: Well, I understand that there are quite a few purists, as far as [MF] DOOM fans, that have gone over those [Special Herbs] beats a million times and they’re not interested in hearing them again. At the same time, I know that there are many, many, many people like myself who weren’t familiar with all those beats. I picked tracks that I wasn’t familiar with, and I know that there’s a lot of people that aren’t that familiar with all those beats like that. And so for most of those people there’s gonna be a new experience, a completely new experience.
For those cats who are already familiar with those beats, get into the records. Get into the songs, get into the album for what it is, give it a chance and you might be surprised that there’s actually an experience that’s a little different than the instrumental albums.
And there’s additional production, because we beefed up – added kicks and snares and bass – the original tracks and added some cool little things and drops and change-ups and things like that to kind of spruce it up a little bit.
DX: MF DOOM, he actually only rhymes on one track, the joint with Big Daddy Kane, “Think I Am.” Was DOOM not down for a full collaborative project or was it never intended to be a duo thing?
Masta Ace: It was never intended [to be a duo album]. It was a project that I was working on before he even knew about it. When I met with him in August – We did a show at The Montreux Jazz Festival and I went to his hotel room and I played him the album from beginning to end, every song. So that was his first time hearing any records.
At that point “Think I Am” only had one verse on it. And I said, “I’m still working on this second verse but if you wanna jump on here.” And he was like, “Absolutely,” he was down to do it.
DX: Have you guys politicked about maybe trying to do original material together in the future?
Masta Ace: Just kind of glossed over it. You know, it would take a lot ‘cause I move fast and I’m not in the habit of taking three years to complete projects. This project took way longer than it should have taken to come out. It was actually done in September. When I played it for him in August, there was only like two or three more songs that had to be mixed and by September it was ready to go. We were just waiting on his verse.
DX: One last question about the album. On the title-track, “Son Of Yvonne,” you go in over that “Elder Blossoms” about your mother, and its really I think the most powerful joint on this project. There’s still some mention of “Hoe-Tel Leftovers” and other skirt-chasing material on the album, but speak on who this LP is really dedicated to.
Masta Ace: It’s dedicated to the person who as a single mom figured it out on her own. Working different jobs. My grandmother definitely had a hand in helping her out when she was out working and held me down quite a bit too. But, [my mother] actually put off college so that I could go to [the University of Rhode Island]. She was in college, she was taking classes, and when I got to be a senior in high school she stopped her schooling so that I could do my four years and she didn’t go back until I graduated.
When I really looked back at what she pulled off it was pretty amazing. To be a kid coming from Brownsville, Brooklyn – one of the harshest areas in Brooklyn, New York - and living in the projects, there’s a lot of alcoholism, drug abuse, guns, there’s so much negative things around me but I didn’t grow up a negative kid. I saw stuff but it didn’t – She had enough of a grasp on my brain so that I didn’t get caught up in that. I made the right decisions when those opportunities came up to maybe go left. She instilled in me that strength to be able to go, “Nah, I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna fall back; I’m not gonna roll with y’all, I’m gonna go do this.” And, just every step of the way, just really putting the right message out there for me as a young kid and helping me to become the man that I became.
DX: Now, I don’t wanna get ahead of this project, but I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t ask if there’s gonna be an official follow-up to A Long Hot Summer coming soon?
Masta Ace: I don’t have it [planned]; it’s not in the works. It’s not anything that I’m planning or thinking about, but I am gonna be [releasing something else]. The next project is supposed to be a soundtrack to my DVD life story, which is partially shot. I got a lot more shooting to do. But I’m gonna be doing a soundtrack to that, to my life story, which in a lot of ways Ma_Doom kind of sounds like. So I guess in a way it’ll be a continuation of some of the stories and ideas that are on this record. But it’ll be a full soundtrack. And it’s gonna be produced mostly by Marco Polo, but I do have a DJ Premier track that I’m excited about. My first ever collaboration with him.
DX: You talking about you don’t wanna wait on people, how long did you have to wait for that? [Laughs]
Masta Ace: Nah, not long. The stars gotta be aligned just right with Premier, but it worked out. I did DJ Eclipse’s show the other night at Sirius Satellite Radio and Premier was filling in for him and I mentioned this beat that I had heard him play two years previous, that at the time was supposed to be for another artist. I asked him whatever happened to that beat and he told me it never got used. And we went into his laptop and dug it up and he said it’s open. So I was like, “That’s my beat. Let’s go.”
DX: I wanna wrap up this quick Q&A by asking you about a couple of recent tweets you made [@mastaace]. Someone tweeted you on June 11th asking if you would ever work with Eminem, and you replied [that the deejay constructed] “Hellbound” may remain your only sorta collabo. I’m a little surprised that even after he wrote about [your influence on him] in his book, [The Way I Am], and remixed “SlaughtaHouse” [in 2008 for Delicious Vinyl’s Rmxxology project] that that conversation between y’all never happened.
Masta Ace: Yeah [pauses], it’s tricky, man. He was originally supposed to be on Disposable Arts. A lot of people don’t know that. The track that Young Zee is on with me and Strick, [“Something’s Wrong”], he was supposed to be on that track. And, management kinda came in and got a little heavy-handed I guess and told him that wasn’t in his best interest at that time.
Now, I don’t know where he’s at career-wise, mentally, whatever else-wise now, but I know that back then he said that it just wasn’t gonna work out.
I’m not one to keep pursuing stuff. I’m a Brooklyn dude, so my mentality is always like, “I’ll mess with you if you mess with me. If you ain’t messing with me, then it’s all good, I’ll keep it moving.” It’s a pride factor a little bit, you know. And, sometimes pride’s not a good thing to have. But, that’s my mentality on it. Like, he would literally have to reach out to me and be like, “Yo, let’s do something.” Then I’d be with it. But I’m not gonna reach out again like that. And it’s all love but I’ll leave it where it’s at.
DX: Now the last tweet I wanna ask you about you tweeted on June 12th: “I was on a Grand Jury several years ago and guess who walked in as a witness on defendant’s behalf … Special Ed. #truestory Never told him.” You never told Ed, but did you tell the judge, “Hey, that’s my fellow Crooklyn Dodger”? [Laughs]
Masta Ace: Nah, I didn’t say anything. I probably was obligated to, based on what they told us. But, based on the people that were on that Grand Jury and the way that they were just quickly doing away with cases and indicting people, I knew that this kid was gonna be in trouble. And, the evidence was really, really bad against him. It was amazing to me that the room was ready to indict this kid based on the story that the police told. And I just couldn’t stand by and see that happen based on what I had heard.
In a Grand Jury it’s basically a majority vote is what determines an indictment. And on that particular vote – that was the only vote that day that was so close, because like I said, there were a lot of people in the room that just wanted to get through the day. They found it very easy to just vote, indict, indict, indict, and I, for the first time that day, I voiced my opinion and argued about the evidence that was presented and I got three or four people that felt the same way I did and swayed their vote in my direction. And that allowed him to not be indicted.
DX: There were no other like Hip Hop heads on that jury or anybody in the courtroom who put two and two together?
Masta Ace: Nah, believe it or not. It was just like a lot of regular people: accountants and housewives and people like that. There was nobody that [was like], “You look familiar.” I didn’t get that at all.
DX: Did Ed see you? Did y’all make eye contact?
Masta Ace: No, no, no, I actually slumped down in my seat pretty good because I didn’t want him to see me. And the funny thing is you mentioning this, but I was on the phone with [Special] Ed last night and forgot to even talk about it.
DX: Well let’s let him read about it.
Masta Ace: Alright.